ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 228

Nadim Faris forages for mushrooms near his village of Hurfeish, March 2024. (Diana Bletter)
Nadim Faris forages for mushrooms near his village of Hurfeish, March 2024. (Diana Bletter)
Reporter's notebookWhere once were mushrooms are now anti-tank missiles

As Hezbollah lobs rockets from Lebanon, Druze forager continues traditional fungi hunt

Nadim Faris’s expertise crosses borders and connects nations as Syrians and Jordanians ask him to bestow Arabic monikers on the region’s wild mushrooms

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Nadim Faris, a mushroom forager from the Druze village of Hurfeish in the Galilee, is known as the man who gives Arabic names to wild mushrooms. He has even supplied monikers for mushrooms to foragers in Syria via Facebook, using a combination of Latin, English and Hebrew to create Arabic names that easily slip across borders between warring countries.

After heavy rains on a late March morning, the 62-year-old mycology enthusiast was eager to go out to forage for chanterelles and other mushrooms in the woods by Hurfeish, about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the Lebanese border, despite the constant threat of rocket attacks by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terror group.

Hezbollah has attacked Israeli communities and military posts along the border almost daily, killing 10 soldiers and seven civilians, with the group saying it is doing so to support Gaza amid the war there. That war broke out on October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists stormed into Israel by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages, mostly civilians.

Unlike many of the communities in northern Israel, the 7,000 residents of Hurfeish have not been evacuated, yet the village, usually bustling with visitors, feels empty. Druze men serve in the IDF and many of them are away; so far, two soldiers from Hurfeish have been killed in fighting since October 7.

In Israel, the mushroom foraging community brings together Druze, Muslims, Christians and Jews who exchange information about wild mushrooms — both edible and toxic — and where to find them. People from around the country often join Faris for foraging in his familiar woods but few are willing to make the journey now.

When he invited The Times of Israel to go foraging, Faris, a former IDF soldier, said that although “there is danger,” he wasn’t afraid. The wooded hillside, which Faris has known since he was a little boy, seemed eerily peaceful although it is so close to the border. Still, throughout the two-hour walk, he was alert, aware of where he was in relation to the north. Not entirely joking, he said that if there were sirens indicating incoming rockets, there was shelter behind the largest tree.

Nadim Faris forages for mushrooms with his dog near his village of Hurfeish, March 2024. (Diana Bletter)

Then, pointing to Mt. Adir in the near distance, he said, “On an ordinary day, we could go there and find lots of mushrooms, but now we’d only find anti-tank missiles.” Nowadays, Faris sticks close to his village, where he and his wife were both born and where they raised their five children.

The Druze religion was founded in the 10th century as a divergent branch of Islam. There are about one million Druze living mostly in Syria and Lebanon and an estimated 150,000 in Israel. It is a close-knit community.

Teach and be taught

Broad-shouldered with white hair and a thoughtful smile, Faris wore a flannel shirt, his pocket knife hanging from a string around his neck as he walked. He said that foraging for edibles in the woods is a tradition he learned from his parents and grandparents. He worked for many years as an instructor of industrial engineering at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and now teaches technology at two Arabic-speaking high schools.

“Isn’t that the most important thing in life?” he asked rhetorically. “To teach other people and to learn from them?”

Nadim Faris forages for mushrooms near his village of Hurfeish, March 2024. (Diana Bletter)

Faris took knowing steps around massive boulders, under branches of oak trees and circumventing brambles. He said that he belongs to the “third group of hunters” — after those who hunt for fish and animals, there are those who hunt for mushrooms. Indeed, the popularity of foraging for mushrooms in Israel has risen dramatically in recent years. A group on Facebook now has 60,000 members; the WhatsApp group for foragers in northern Israel numbers 200.

The air in the woods was damp and cool, the bare trees glistening with dew. Splashes of purple cyclamens and red poppies were scattered here and there. Walking slightly bent, observing the ground layered with acorns and fallen leaves, he stopped to examine a patch of tousled dirt.

“The boars passed through here,” he observed. “I’ve found black truffles that boars have dug up. They dig for them, but don’t eat all of them.”

There were no truffles to be found and few other kinds of mushrooms, but Faris wasn’t disappointed. “I just like being in nature,” he said. “Sometimes I go out during a break at work and don’t even pick anything.”

He held back a thorny branch and then apologized.

“I try to make a path, but the forest grows at a faster pace,” he said. “After the rain, everything wakes up.”

Wild mushrooms are fungi, originating from minuscule spores that are carried by the wind or fall to the ground. After rains, they pop up as if by magic, sometimes doubling their size overnight. He pointed to a purplish mushroom, Lepista nuda, that was nameless in Arabic until Faris chose its new name, “Banafsagi ailaziz,” or “Tasty purple,” which he has heard is now being used in Syria as well as Jordan.

The mushroom Lepista nuda, which Nadim Faris named ‘Banafsagi ailaziz’ in Arabic. (Diana Bletter)

The forest as pharmacy

Faris follows the way of his parents and never collects more mushrooms than he needs for that day’s meal. He added that the taste changes when he puts mushrooms in the freezer.

He recalled foraging as a boy and bringing home a box of mushrooms for his father, who then weeded out the inedible and poisonous varieties.

The Society for Wild Mushrooms in Israel reports that there are some 750 known species of mushrooms in the country. About 135 are edible; the others are sometimes edible or suspected to be toxic.

In December, a woman was hospitalized at Rambam Hospital due to severe poisoning from a wild mushroom that she picked. She was treated and released. There are several cases of mushroom poisoning each year. Faris emphasizes the importance of looking for mushrooms with people who have experience and can distinguish between the edible and the toxic.

Nadim Faris holds the medicinal herb cours ani, near his village of Hurfeish, March 2024. (Diana Bletter)

Faris, like other villagers in Hurfeish, also forages for wild plants and herbs. He stopped to pick some end-of-the-season wild asparagus and then offered a taste of a plant he called “Cours ani” in Arabic, which he said cleans out toxins in the body and is good for salads.

Then he knelt down and cleared away some leaves. There, underneath the dirt was a mushroom called Helvella crispa. It was only recently recognized as edible, but he now eats it after sauteeing it in oil.

Nadim Faris holds a helvella crispa mushroom, which he sautés in olive oil, near his village of Hurfeish, March 2024. (Diana Bletter)

“My son told me that some people will die from heart attacks or disease, but I’ll die from a mushroom,” he joked.

In addition to foraging for wild plants, Faris also has a nursery, Bustan HaShemesh, or Garden of the Sun, where he cultivates and sells blueberry, raspberry, blackberry and strawberry seedlings. He said he wants people to come to Hurfeish, but since October 7, visitors are rare.

The local council of Hurfeish has joined with other non-evacuated municipalities in the north to demand government compensation for the economic impact caused by the ongoing conflict. Until then, the villagers live under constant threat. During the last war with Hezbollah in 2006, a rocket exploded 30 feet from his house, which sustained heavy damage. Yet Faris still forages in the woods, sometimes twice a day.

“This knowledge that I have is a treasure, passed from generation to generation,” he said. “It’s how we increase awareness of Mother Earth and how much she can give.”

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